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The White CoatsDid you ever play doctor when you were little? It was easy… just put on a white coat. Thatís the quintessential symbol for an MD.

In fact many medical schools have a white coat ceremony to formally mark a studentís entry into medical training. More importantly, for patients itís the symbol of trusted authority.

However, surprisingly the subject of white coats isnít so… black and white. Thatís because a number of recent studies suggests a quarter of white coats worn by doctors in a general hospital carry disease-causing bacteria.

Consider a study at the University of Maryland that found only 65 percent of doctors had changed their coats in the last week. Whatís more shocking is that 15 percent admitted they hadn't changed coats in a month!

To give you an understanding of why thatís worrisome, certain bacteria can survive on clothing for quite some time.

For example, a bacterium called methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA which is resistant to many antibiotics can survive on clothing for as long as 56 days.

Thatís a lot of patient encounters with a life threatening bacterium along for the ride!

But not all doctors wear white coats. For example, pediatricians often donít so that children arenít intimidated. And some doctors donít wear them in case a patient has white coat hypertension.

Thatís a spike in blood pressure caused by anxiety at seeing their doctor. So is it time for doctors to abandon tradition, and say good-bye to their white coats? Not so fast.

A recent study in Ireland suggests patients prefer doctors in white coats. Britain is keeping its white coats but altered them with shorter sleeves to minimize contamination.

Studies also show when hospitals handle staff laundry, hospital-acquired infections decrease. Sounds like simple solutions to keep a tradition — going safely.

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A paper published in the British Medical Journal summarized the bacterial flora on the white coats worn by doctors. It can be read here. This journal also published a personal view by Dr. Ayan Panja about the wearing of white coats by doctors.

A motion promoting the use of scrubs over coats in all hospitals was passed by members of the British Medical Association in an effort to limit the transmission of superbugs such as MRSA.
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The traditional doctor's white coat was dropped by all National Health Service hospitals in Scotland as part of a new "dress code" for all medical staff.
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Another article about the use of white coats by physicians can be read here.


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